Parts of the Bible are occupied with teaching the reader about the difference between right and wrong. Proverbs is a little different. It is about teaching the reader how he can become more inclined to do right and less compelled to do wrong. If you have an obligation to do the right thing then you have an obligation to become more prone to do the right thing, to be quicker to do the right thing.
Proverbs is written to a young man around the time of adolescence, perhaps a little before or after. But he has, or is about to have, new strength that makes him attractive as a recruit to a robber gang (Proverbs 1). Thus, Proverbs also deals with the temptation of a bored housewife who is looking for a young man for a casual extramarital fling (Proverbs 7, but first mentioned earlier in 2). Both men and women of all ages can learn wisdom from Proverbs, but Proverbs presents wisdom through advice for a young man.
Why? Young men are in a transitional stage, on the cusp of adulthood. In Proverbs, Wisdom offers him a path to true power.
“By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly” (Proverbs 8:15-16).
Why is power such a concern for a young person? Because children start off in life as virtual slaves.
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Solomon and the Apostle Paul would tell you that man is born a slave as a baby that is destined to become a ruler, the only kind of free person that there is. There is nothing wrong with a child being a slave, but it is shameful if he remains a slave when he is supposed to mature into freedom. The impulse to maintain childhood is foolishness and leads to more foolishness. As Paul wrote: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” (Gal. 4:1–2)
A child is a slave because others give him orders. If a child’s parents hire a tutor to teach him, that tutor will be a mere employee of the parents. He won’t be a member of the family. But the child will be required to submit to his authority. The child, while he is being taught, is required to heed a mere hired hand.
As a child outgrows the “slavery” of childhood, another change is supposed to occur. As a child becomes a man, his judgment is supposed to improve. According to Paul, Christ gave pastors and other gifts to the Church “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13–14 ESV).
We learn from this analogy that children are like slaves not only in how they are treated in the family social hierarchy, but also in their lack of discernment. They are vulnerable to those who would exploit them by deceit. Their emotions and desires can be used to manipulate them. They are easily enslaved. A mature adult should not be so vulnerable.
So a child is a slave and there’s nothing wrong with that. He has been given parents to protect him and allow him to grow up to become a mature adult who has discernment.
But what can go wrong?
A young child often sees adults as possessing an amazing amount of freedom. They get to go to bed when they want. They drink alcoholic beverages if they want to do so. They decide when to eat ice cream and how much. They determine their own limits in watching video entertainment. No one tells them (a child thinks) what to do.
Thus, a child’s impression of adult freedom is something like being a child without parental supervision. Freedom is seen as getting to play whenever one wants. As a child grows up, he should understand that this is not a proper conception of adulthood, but sinful human beings are prone to wishful thinking even when they are smart enough to know better. They resist the Apostle Paul’s wisdom: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Cor. 13:11 ESV)
When you refuse to give up childish ways, you don’t thereby really remain a child. A young man has more intelligence, knowledge, and strength than he did as a child. Sexual development is also a new element in his life. Yet, if he doesn’t embrace wisdom, he will be prone to treat these new interests and abilities as if they were new toys, rather than as adult gifts and adult responsibilities. And if this continues, he will be ruled by these now out-of-control desires and destructive habits.
He will be enslaved rather than empowered.